Mule skinner: I couldn’t explain it better: “A muleskinner is a professional mule driver whose sole purpose was to keep the mules moving. The term “skinner” is slang for someone who might “skin” or outsmart a mule” (more).
Fine black silk hung limp and strangely heavy in the still air of Sunrise Valley. A long length of it draped in and around the double arch of the towering wrought iron gate marking the entrance to the ranch. At the apex a huge swag of twisted twigs and dried berries would brush the head of a man on horseback passing beneath.
Death. In the family. Recent and not just anyone.
Family. And that was a painfully short list.
The binoculars slipped from suddenly numb fingers and thudded to the moss-covered rock inches from Sean Riley Carter’s chin. He shivered in an evening breeze that still carried the bitter edge of winter, and rolled away from that view, tucking his bare hands into his armpits. But nothing could protect his fingers from this kind of chill.
Who could it be? He’d only been gone six weeks. When he’d left, his parents—for so he’d thought of Winni and Tomas Carter for years now—had been hale and happy. Excited about the cross-breeding program with James McKenna’s hearty new line of horses. He’d talked to them both only a week ago and there’d been no hint of problems.
What could have happened? An accident? A throw from a horse? But Tomas had the best seat on the planet. No animal alive, especially not one trained here at Sunrise, could dump him. There was that nasty-tempered little piebald Granger had brought in, but Tomas had promised to let Sean try his hand with the outlaw.
Probably not a fall, but there were other potential hazards in any equine operation, and the coming of spring would have Tomas itching to get outside. Or maybe not an accident at all. Illness was always a danger, far out from the City as they were.
Possibly it wasn’t even his parents.
A hint of reviving warmth at that thought. A lot of people lived on the ranch. People Winni and Tomas might well consider family, long time family retainers they might well give this sign of respect. Old people.
One thing was sure: he’d never doubt one of Seamus’ gut feelings again.
And Seamus had said, Be careful. Keep low. Avoid the Towers. And added: Look out for Willi.
Willi. William Grant. Mum’s twin brother. And a more paranoid man didn’t exist in all the
world. Long before Tomas had picked Sean up out of the gutters of Shadow Falls, Willi had been an irritant in Tomas’ side, recommending this and that change to Sunrise Farms, mostly having to do with surveillance. And not just to guard the perimeter of the rich land whose value had skyrocketed in the last generation. Willi suspected everyone . . . especially the men and women who
had served the Carter’s for generations.
A sudden gust set the drape to snapping. The setting sun limned the valley in fire and faded the first touch of spring green in the vast fields to grey. To the north, just above the tree-topped Sugerloaf, the winking Eye heralded the rapid onslaught of night.
Lights came on in the big house sprawled at the end of the long driveway.
He inched backwards, hoping Uncle Willi hadn’t put in any new cameras in the last six weeks, but not willing to bet his neck on that hope.
Tomas had confided to Sean more than once that Willi was the best argument ever against nepotism, that he never should have hired him to handle the security of the Farm. Wouldn’t have, if not for the love Winni had for her brother.
But Willi was that way, so Winni told Sean with an indulgent smile, because Tomas was so trusting. Someone had to take care of him. Sean could understand that. His own instincts frequently ran counter to Tomas’ choices, and he’d made a habit over the years to watch for people trying to take advantage of his adopted father.
People, he was sorry to say, like Willi. And it was his gut level suspicions of Willi now that made him inclined to heed to Seamus’ warning.
Sean worked his way down the steep path, wiggling from one sharp-edged boulder to the next, risking an ankle in a final slide into the camp they’d pitched up tight against the cliff face.
As he thudded to the ground, Seamus’ red head popped through the tent’s flap and Fintan ducked under the mules’ picketline on the far side of the camp. As he straightened, his dark eyes met Sean’s across the struggling fire.
“Seamus was right, wasn’t he?” Fintan said, his deep voice low but carrying. He was the oldest of them, though not by much. Old, old friends, they were. Friends from the alleys and dumps of Shadow Falls. Friends he’d nearly lost when Tomas had brought his battered self to Sunrise. “Something’s happened. Something bad.”
Sean nodded, still not trusting his voice. These two were his brothers, in every way that mattered. Tomas had saved them, too, once Sean had wailed his grief out and explained. It had taken the better part of a year but Tomas had found them and brought them to Sunrise as well. He’d made them welcome, but he hadn’t adopted them as he had Sean. If it was Tomas who was gone, they’d grieve, but more for his loss than their own.
Seamus just stood there. Small. Undersized even for the sixteen years they knew he was. How much beyond that, they none of them knew for sure. Suddenly, he began to shake and his legs just seemed to melt under him.
Fintan was a half-step faster than Sean sliding in under the wilting body, protecting Seamus’ head from the stony ground. Sean dropped down beside them and caught Seamus’ palsied hands.
They were freezing.
“C–c–cold,” Seamus whispered. “S–s–so c–cold. S–sorry. Sorry.”
“Shut up,” Sean murmured back and pulled him up into his arms, giving Fin a chance to push himself up to sit crosslegged, frowning at them. Not that the frown meant anything. Fin always frowned.
Together, they wiggled backward into the tent, out of the rising wind and while Sean held tight, Fin shook out one of the sleeping bags, opened it flat and wrapped it around Seamus, who was muttering incoherently now.
“I haven’t seen him this bad since we thought we’d lost you,” Fin said as he tucked the bag in between Sean and the cliff-backed canvas. “Talk to him, Sean. He’s always loved you more than anyone. Don’t let his mind wander. Keep him with us.”
Seamus’ small body felt even smaller than usual. Downright fragile. Sean wrapped himself around the shivers and murmured anything that came into his head, and slowly, in his concern over his friend, he found that image of the bundle of dead branches fading into the back of his mind and as his horror faded, so did Seamus’ trembling. Finally, his friend’s entire body heaved in a sigh and he curled around to bury his fists in Sean’s coat’s fur collar.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered into the dark warmth between their bodies. “S–so—”
“Shut up,” Sean repeated and hugged him, hard. It wasn’t the first seizure Seamus had had and wouldn’t be the last. He needed help. He really did, but Seamus had always freaked at the notion that they tell anyone, so they just handled it themselves—however they could.
He closed his lids on eyes tending to water. It scared him. Really seriously scared him. Five years ago, when Tomas’ men had brought him to Sunrise, Seamus had looked like a walking corpse. White and limp. He’d collapsed the moment he saw Sean, and Sean hadn’t dared leave his side for a week, sleeping and eating in the room. Seamus had recovered, but he’d never been strong.
And yet, delicate as he was, even Tomas said he was the best skinner he’d ever seen, especially for his age, though in private, to Sean, he deleted even that qualification. Though he didn’t ride worth a damn, he could convince any mule alive to walk on water, if that’s what was needed.
He also had an absolutely uncanny ability to predict exactly when a mare would foal. And if that predication came with a white face and racing heart, they knew there’d be trouble. After the third such ‘coincidence,’ Tomas had learned to have the vet waiting.
This time, it was no breach birth that had set off his internal alarms. On Seamus’ insistence, they’d taken the back trails and stopped early: they could have made it in easily, despite the moonless night and steep trail ahead.
Thanks to Seamus, they weren’t riding in blind.
He met Fin’s eyes over the top of Seamus’ head and said, “I’ve got to go in.”
Seamus’ head shook frantically. “You can’t! It’s wrong. It’s all wrong. If you go in, bad things will happen. Terrible things!”
Sean worked his fingers into the long red hair, massaging gently.
“Something bad already has,” he said to Fin. “I’ve got to find out what.”
Fin’s grim expression didn’t change. “It’ll be hard on Seamus.”
“Can’t be helped.”
He worked the clenching fingers free of his coat, held them and blew on them. “Look at me, Seamus.”
Swimming blue eyes lifted reluctantly.
“I’ll be careful. I promise. You’ve given me the warning I need, but someone’s dead and I’ve got to know who.”
Another frantic shake sent hair flying. “We can leave. Now. Just the three of us.”
“And go where, Seamus?”
A hard swallow. A single whispered word: “Prosperity.”
That surprised him. Prosperity was just a spot on the map, well to the south and west, on the edge of the Great Desert.
But evidently not, from the startled look he shot at Seamus, to Fin. Sean tilted his head in a silent question, but Fin ignored him. Finally:
“I can’t, Seamus. The Carters have been good to us. I owe them. We all do.”
A hard swallow. A shiver, then: “Take me with you?”
He barely heard the whisper, and just shook his head. It was, Seamus knew, out of the question.
“If you don’t come back,” Seamus said then, “I’ll die. You know I will.”
“Then who would take care of Fin?”
Swimming blue eyes blinked then flashed to Fin. Fin, the steady one, who loved Seamus beyond words; Fin, who was always an afterthought to the volatile youngster.
Fin shrugged, his face as grim as ever. “I suggest, Sean, you make sure you come back.”
Sean checked the picket line before he left, not because he didn’t trust Fin but because it was something he always did before leaving camp for any length of time . . . rather like a final check to make sure the fire was out before deserting a camp for good.
The mule team was the first wholly trained by Seamus, and only Sunrise’s most experienced teams, teams twice the age of this lot, were as unified. This had been their first hire and they’d damned near lost them to the exuberant customer. Only the man’s accountant convincing him he’d be the next ten years paying the extravagant offering price had saved poor Seamus’ nerves.
What that eager buyer hadn’t realized was that, without Seamus, the team was just as quirky as any other, perhaps more so. They loved Seamus and resented being ordered about by anyone less.
Besides, no breeder sold a big team—he’d known that even before he’d called Tomas to ask whether to accept the offer. Singles, pairs, even some four-ups, but nothing above that. They took too long to breed, too long to train. A few competent indi-skinners had put together some teams of their own out of random pairs, but they couldn’t touch the teams who’d been together since they were weanlings.
But Tomas had gone further than to refuse to sell.
Nothing, so Tomas had assured him over the phone, ever replaced one’s first team, and Tomas had promised, over that same phone, to sign the team over to Seamus when they returned, putting him in control of their destiny, a gesture that had only brought more tears from the already emotionally wrought Seamus.
He went down the line, scratching each eagerly offered head.
It had been a hard couple of weeks for his normally cheerful friend. Utter sunshine or utter doom . . . there was little between for Seamus.
At the end of the line, isolated in his cross-tie and mobile manger, was Stormy Morning, the stud he was bringing back from a month of doing what stud horses did best.
Stormy greeted him with a demanding snort and a toss of his dark head, and Sean ducked inside the heavy canvas and netting tent that protected the big horse from the native flora.
He was a beautiful creature, a steel-grey roan with black points, black mane and a strikingly full tail that was black with a white core. More to the point, he was the heartiest—and smartest—of the Sunrise horses, seeming to share a mule’s sense of what not to eat. The foals he and McKenna’s mares produced might actually be able to survive off the planet’s native flora.
Or at least manage not to die of the casual snack.
That was the problem with horses. The native flora was deadly to them and not all the fancy gene-cutters had been able to make it otherwise, back in the day. They just couldn’t digest the native grasses and it sat there in their delicate stomachs and fermented.
Native flora killed horses. Donkeys knew better than to eat most of it and could actually survive off a handful of species. But donkeys were small. Their usefulness limited. Mules, with their hybrid vigor, had the size and strength of their horse dams and the canniness and hardiness of their donkey sires.
Mules were a valuable commodity and riding mules and small teams sold as fast as Sunrise could produce them. But you couldn’t get mules without mares and jacks and you didn’t get mares and jacks without stallions and mares and jennies and jacks and you needed enough of all of those to avoid disastrous levels of inbreeding. And while horses required the imported grasses and grains to survive, even donkeys and mules fared far better on their native fodder. Land around the breeding farms, fertilized for centuries by the offworld animals’ own output, land like Sunrise valley, was the
best hay country in the world.
Time was, Tomas had taught him, horses had been a luxury item, mules a curiosity that had found a small niche in the outback mining operations where weather had made air lifts problematic at best. Now, mules were essential, and there were only a handful of breeders in the entire world. For all the amateurs’ attempts to capitalize on the shifting economics, by the time the value of mules was understood, it was too late to start new facilities. The extant breeders weren’t about to sell their quality breeding stock to competitors and the offworld sources had long since dried up.
Besides, breeding and training horses and mules was an artform that one didn’t learn overnight, even if you could find someone to teach you.
And so Tomas, in his lifetime, had become rich beyond his forefathers’ wildest imaginings.
And because Tomas and Winni had proved as barren as the mules they raised, it was all, someday, to come to him, Sean Riley Carter, a guttersnipe from Shadow Falls.
Pray to all the gods that that Someday was still a long, long way in the future.
He buried his head in Stormy’s neck and gave way to the tears that had threatened since he saw that shrouded gate. He didn’t want Sunrise. He wanted the sense of family Tomas had given him, he wanted the parents fate had denied him so long ago he didn’t even know who his parents were. He was a guttersnipe raised by other guttersnipes. That had been his family and that family had been wiped out in the same territorial war that had nearly killed him. Only Fin and Seamus had survived, and that only because Fin had stayed behind to take care of Seamus, who had collapsed screaming when he, Sean, had been taken by that rival gang.
Gods, it seemed so long ago, now.
Stormy nuzzled his shoulder, caught his ponytail and tugged gently, reminding him about the treats that were his due. Sean mumbled a damp apology and dug two out of his pocket, offering them to the eager mouth.
If the team was the love of Seamus’ life, Stormy was his. He was the first foal Sean had ever helped deliver and it had been his hands that cleared those nostrils and dried the dark wet coat. Stormy had been almost black when he was born, and that first summer had wrought a startling transformation to what Tomas called a true-blue roan, a mix of black and white hairs that turned him the color of tempered steel.
And now, he was going to be a daddy. Several times over, if they were lucky.
Lucky. Gods . . . he could only hope. He needed luck right now, and lots of it.
He sighed and hugged the big horse before ducking back out of the tent.
Part Two Coming Soon!